Put a ring on it: 99-year-old finds new owner for WW II engagement rings

Annette Vardy of Clarenville accepted a marriage proposal when she was 22 but never got to wed her sweetheart. Decades later she has passed the rings on, saying "I wanted somebody to have them who would care."

Annette Vardy kept rings after sweetheart soldier survived war, but died rescuing swimmers

Annette Vardy had one true love, who died before they could marry. Now the rings he gave her are being worn by a new member of her family. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Annette Vardy's life story reads like a movie script.

True love thwarted by tragedy, adventures that took a small-town nurse from Clarenville, N.L. to a lifetime of missionary work in India, and now — at the age of 99 — a happy ending involving the symbols of that love affair from her youth.

On Sunday, Sept. 24, the rings that a 22-year-old Vardy accepted in a marriage proposal from a young navy recruit headed to the Second World War were placed on the hand of another woman in a ceremony officiated by Vardy herself.

He went overseas and I was left, and he asked me to wait for him. I'm still waiting.- Annette Vardy

For years, Vardy had kept the rings on a chain around her neck, and later, stored in a box.

"It was a joy for me to know that they wouldn't be thrown in the garbage," she told CBC's Here & Now. "I thought about being buried with them but they wouldn't serve any purpose then, would they?"

Vardy performed the ceremony when Chris Vardy and Mary Crotty got married on Sept. 24. (Submitted)

The woman who will wear the rings, Mary Crotty, married Vardy's second cousin Chris Vardy, whose father was extremely close to the woman the family calls "Aunt Nete."

"When she first told me about the rings and offered me the rings, I was speechless because I thought, 'Who am I?'" Crotty said.

"We will cherish them because of who owned them and the history that surrounds them."

'I met a young man. I fell in love'

Annette Vardy, who describes herself a very positive person with "an inquiring mind," sums up the events of her early 20s in a few succinct words.

"I met a young man. I fell in love. I got engaged. The war started, and he enlisted in the navy," she said. "He went overseas and I was left, and he asked me to wait for him. I'm still waiting."

Her fiancé was Arthur Stanfield, a teacher from Bonavista Bay, who she had known for about a year before he enlisted.

Arthur Stanfield and Annette Vardy were both in their early 20s when he proposed before heading off to serve in the Second World War. (Submitted)

"He was handsome and I thought I had the world in a shell, but we have to take life as it comes."

Stanfield wanted to get married before he left to go overseas, but Vardy had reservations.

"The way I felt about it at the time — I didn't want to be left alone and have a child," she said.

"He said 'Will you marry me?' and I said 'Yes, when you come back.' He said 'Will you accept a ring?' and I said 'Yes,' so he knelt down and put the ring on my finger." 

She pauses to compose herself. "It's still with me."

Ironically, Arthur Stanfield survived the war. His death came just after, as he stopped to visit his family in Toronto.

"He was on his way to Newfoundland and I was waiting, anticipating, and he went out to Niagara Falls and there was a boat capsized. He swam out and he got two people, saved their lives, came back to shore, brought them back and he died of a heart attack."

Vardy found out when she read the notice in the newspaper.

Vardy says she didn't want to get married before her fiance headed overseas but agreed to wait for him. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

In the years since, she said she has had many male friends, but made it clear she was not interested in having a husband. Not after Arthur.

"He was a gentleman in every sense of the word and I like gentlemen." Does she still love him? "Still. Just as fresh today as the day he asked me to marry him."

'A wonderful life'

But don't shed any tears for Annette Vardy, who said she has had "a wonderful life … I'll be 100 on the 25th of January, and I still enjoy life. I'm having a ball."

After Arthur's death, Vardy, a staunch member of the Salvation Army, went to the church's training college and to nursing school, working for a few years on the mainland and in St. John's.

She trained as a nurse and did missionary work in hospitals in India for 30 years. (Submitted)

She eventually applied to do missionary work and travelled to London and then India, where she spent 30 years working in hospitals, sharing patients with Mother Teresa, though the two never got to meet.

It was there that Vardy unofficially adopted a baby left orphaned when her mother died giving birth and her father was struck and killed leaving the hospital.

"She was just a bundle of bones and not very pretty to look at, but if you look into anybody there is some beauty there, and I saw the beauty spot."

Her daughter, Leila, now 57, remained in India and is a college graduate with three sons who were also educated thanks to $10,000 Vardy provided for that purpose.

Vardy with Leila, the daughter she adopted unofficially while working as a nurse in India. (Submitted)

But Leila doesn't wear the rings that Arthur Stanfield gave to Annette Vardy. It isn't customary for Indian women to wear wedding rings, Vardy explained. 

Her three sisters and brother have all passed away, and she was unsure of what to do with the rings — until now.

'She still has so much love to give'

The idea began when Annette Vardy's cousin, Chris Vardy, was planning his marriage to Mary Crotty. He wanted Vardy, a Major in the Salvation Army, to perform the ceremony — her first, even though she had been registered to do that in 1946.

"I didn't know what to do with the rings. [I'm] 99 years old, I know I'm not going to use them. I knew that but what to do with them? Would they go to the dump when I'm finished? Would someone say 'whose ring does she have here?'" Vardy asked.

Mary Crotty says she was overwhelmed when she was asked if she wanted to wear Vardy's rings. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

"So I thought, 'Well Mary and Chris now … I think I will get the two rings out and see what they look like' … I wanted somebody to have them who would care."

Crotty was overwhelmed.

"I didn't have words to say how I felt but I knew that I wanted them to be part of my marriage and part of my life"

She only had Arthur, and even though he was loved and lost, he is still with her very much.- Mary Crotty

She wears the gifted rings along with a band that includes 11 diamonds, to represent the grandchildren she and Chris have between them.

Crotty said "Aunt Nete" is settled in her heart and in her life. 

"She is so steadfast and she has so much courage and even at 99, she still has so much love to give. She may be small in stature but she is a giant in our eyes."

Mary Crotty wears her gifted rings along with a band of diamonds with stones for each of the 11 grandchildren she and her husband share. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

As for the love story that started it all, Crotty said Arthur is never forgotten.

"She only had Arthur, and even though he was loved and lost, he is still with her very much."

And something Vardy said recently reinforced that.

"She said, 'And I think I'm going to see him very soon.'"

Annette Vardy of Clarenville tells the story of her life, that sounds like a movie, filled with love, loss and hope. 6:23

About the Author

Marilyn Boone

CBC News

Marilyn Boone is a producer who works with the CBC bureau in St. John's.

With files from Carolyn Stokes